"An Exercise in Non-Understanding. Bret Easton Ellis: The Rules of Attraction" by Péter Fodor and Péter L. Varga
Péter Fodor is a senior lecturer in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at the University of Debrecen, editor of the Book Review Column of the Alföld Literary Journal. He has published two monographs in Hungarian: a book on the thematization of sport in late modern and postmodern Hungarian prose, and a critical study with Péter L. Varga on Bret Easton Ellis. Email:
Péter L. Varga is an assistant research fellow in the Department of Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies at Eötvös Loránd University and editor of the essay column of Prae Literary Journal. He is an author of four books: A metamorfózis retorikái (The Rhetorics of Metamorphoses), Töréspontok (Breakpoints), Az értelem rácsai (The Bars of Meaning) and a critical study on Bret Easton Ellis co-authored with Peter Fodor. Email:
Translated by Gyula Somogyi
And I sat there feeling like the hapless lover.
But then I remembered, of course, that now I’m only hapless.
(The Rules of Attraction)
A Retroactively Created Center
After the success and the critical acclaim of Less Than Zero in 1985, Bret Easton Ellis published his subsequent novel, The Rules of Attraction relatively quickly, in less than two years. Judging from a superficial look on the thematic and stylistic similarities between the two novels, the majority of criticism contended that the author began where his previous book left off, but this time the outcome was less successful: “the insights were rarer, the humor almost absent, the prose as flat as a day-old latke” (Karlen). The reviews appearing in prestigious dailies objected to the similarities between the characterization in the two novels: “their names may be different, their backgrounds more disparate, but otherwise, they’re the same” (Kakutani); “Beatrix Potter’s […] rabbits and squirrels are more human than Ellis’ college kids, and livelier” (Eder). The critical consensus—which regarded it, similarly to Less Than Zero, as a document of an age, and a work rich in the author’s biographical details—unequivocally qualified it as a step backwards, which might explain why we so rarely meet the novel in scholarly works interested in an in-depth analysis of Ellis’s oeuvre.
Georgina Colby tried her best in her monograph to rehabilitate the unfavorable position of the book within the inner hierarchy of Ellis’s novels: “The Rules of Attraction has often been dismissed as Ellis’s weakest novel, reduced to a campus novel about sex, drugs, and the death of rock ‘n’ roll. Rather, when read closely with full attention to the occurrence of the references that are not referring to pop culture but to the culture that came before, a plaintive novel appears that can be read as mourning the losses of literary and cultural tradition suffered by 1980s culture” (31). This dimension/interpretative potential, however, is totally missing from the otherwise effective cinematic adaptation of The Rules of Attraction (dir. Roger Avary, 2002).One might even ponder why the cinematic adaptation of this book is the only aesthetically appreciable piece inspired by Ellis’s novels, given that many of his texts invoke the medium of the film and the cinematic industry. We are going to try and find an answer to this question later on in the essay.
The novel is set at an imagined East Coast locus, Camden College, New Hampshire, in the same small liberal arts college where Less Than Zero’s Clay studies; the protagonist of the first novel even makes a cameo appearance for a classroom scene and a short confession in The Rules of Attraction. Similarly to the previous book, the novel is not divided into different parts or chapters with titles, although the paratextual references indicate the time: the action takes place in the fall of 1985, about half a year after Clay’s journey home, his Christmas vacation in California, and his return. The indication of time and the familiar description of space might reinforce a referential interpretation of the text: the reader can situate the work in real time and space, as well as in a certain social-political context. The importance of this latter aspect is emphasized by the epigraph of the novel taken from Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato (1978): “The facts, even when beaded on a chain, still did not have real order. Events did not flow. The facts were separate and haphazard and random even as they happened, episodic, broken, no smooth transitions, no sense of events unfolding from prior events.” (206). O’Brien’s novel thematizes the only military conflict the US appeared to lose, the Vietnam War. The young soldier-protagonists’ fight for their country and their survival, the political and student rights movements of the 1960s, and the age of the birth of Generation X provides the background for the ideological and cultural interpretation of The Rules of Attraction (Colby 26-31). Among many other things, what was lost in Vietnam was the Generation X itself: a generation that could not come to terms with its social, political and sexual identity, which writhes helplessly in the California sun, or attends one of the impossible majors of a godforsaken university in New Hampshire. Even though the text is doubtlessly full of references to the cultural icons of the 1960s and 70s, and one of the supporting characters is preoccupied by the way the generation interprets itself, the modality that articulates this dilemma seems to parody the whole concept of generation, revoking rather than reinforcing its validity:
[SEAN:]—“It was the Kennedys, man…” Marc’s tellin’ me while he’s shooting up in his room in Noyes. “The Kennedys, man, screwed it… up… Actually it was J… F… K… John F. Kennedy did it… He screwed it up… all up, you see…. […] There was this… our mothers were pregnant with us when we… I mean, he… was blown away in ‘64 and that whole incident… screwedthingsup… […] And… in turn… you see, it jolted us in a really heavy duty way when we… were… in… […] Whatchma-callit… […] Their… um, primordial wombs, and, so, that is why we are… me, you, the narc across the hall, the sister in Booth, all the way we are… Do you… understand?… Is this clear?” (24)
A similar notion can be perceived in the figure of the hippie girl Sean tells us about (101-106), who represents a perfect and quite humorous caricature of a youth subculture which lost its intellectual aims and its purpose: the rich hippie girl drives a BMW and speaks about Allen Ginsberg, but refuses to read Howl because of its harsh title; she has no positive characteristics other than her sexual appeal, and does not represent any overarching cultural meaning, just like being a punk becomes an empty act of fashion in Less Than Zero. Even more so as the causal principle behind the generational logic itself becomes undone in the novel. The characters cannot decode the driving force behind either their, or other people’s actions, and when they seem to be acting openly and full of emotion, we perceive a disconnection between act and motivation: “[SEAN] I don’t know what comes over me but I pick the receiver up and hurl it against the closet door, but it doesn’t break and I’m grateful even if it is a cheap stereo. I kick it, then grab a box of tapes, unwind one I don’t like and smash it with my boot heel. Then I take a crate of singles I own and make sure I have them on tape before I snap them all into two, then, if possible, into four” (54, emphases added). Even if it does provide a way for linking inside and outside, the prose poetical form of The Rules of Attraction—contrary to the detached voice of the first novel—enables the speakers to form a direct opinion of the world they live in: “[SEAN:] Junkies are pathetic enough but rich junkies are even worse” (27); “[VICTOR:] That girl, like all the others, I had come to believe, was terminally numb. The Talking Heads record was scratched maybe or perhaps Dad hadn’t sent the check yet. That was all this girl was worried about” (315).
Even more intriguing are those parts of the text which cast doubt on the allegorical interpretability of key thematic intersections through mingling discursive layers that do not match. From this perspective the seemingly meaningful events of campus life appear in an ironical light, the political-ideological aspects of the novel are parodistically magnified, because they become the final referent of all the events that take place. This is shown in a gesture of Sean towards the hippie girl, which is connected to a change in the university’s policy on free time management:
“Yeah, well,” I’m suddenly confused. “Still, a weight room.” I don’t really care.
Tony looks at me. “Who are you to talk, Sean? What are you majoring in? Computers?” “Reagan’s Eighties. Detrimental effect on underclassmen,” Tim says, shaking his head.
It really doesn’t piss me off as much as he wants it to. “Computers,” I mimic him.
“What are you majoring in?” He’s daring me, the big fucking baby, finish your salad, asshole. (45)
The hippie cried when Reagan won (the only other time I’d seen her cry was when the school dropped the yoga classes and replaced them with aerobics), even though I had explained patiently, carefully, what the outcome of the election was going to be, weeks in advance. (104)
The political-ideological and cultural critical aspects of The Rules of Attraction are modified by the quasi-biographical train of thought found in Ellis’s Lunar Park, according to which the novel, set “during the height of the Reagan eighties,” “was supposed to be an indictment of, well, really nothing” (13). Thus, on the one hand, the implied author does not provide a referential and moral background to the political-ideological aspects of the novel, on the other hand, the autofictional rhetoric of Lunar Park dislocates these from their original context. Reading The Rules of Attraction along with Lunar Park highlights the novel’s parodistic dimension, the text’s valence as political and cultural critique becomes transient, or riddled with textual contingencies. Furthermore, this can also be connected to how Ellis dislocates the intellectual tradition of the academic novel: The Rules of Attraction almost entirely lacks the world of the classrooms and the teachers, and where these do surface, they are ridiculed at once. We can think of the professor who teaches a course on the postmodern condition, which is then canceled because of the teacher’s drunkenness, and later his drugged stupor (63), or the elderly professor of literature who tries to seduce Lauren with banal figures of speech (214-230), or the seminar which discusses Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung [The Metamorphosis] with little success: it is hard to decide who is more careless in interpreting the conclusion of the short story, Sean who claims that the ending reveals Kafka’s “dissatisfaction with the government,” or the teacher, who claims that “Actually, it’s about the opposite” (248). This scene, of course, can be interpreted as an allegory of reading, a caricature of a critical discourse in pursuit of biographical and social-political meanings in Ellis’s texts, a discourse that still seems to determine the reception of the novels even today.
The Rules of Attraction, a text without chapters, is compiled from shorter and longer dialogues and fragments. The dynamism of the novel is structured by the alternation of voices belonging to the protagonists, primarily three characters: Sean Bateman, Paul Denton and Lauren Hynde. The first is probably the younger brother of Patrick Bateman, the protagonist-narrator of American Psycho, as Sean has a rich brother who lives in New York,1 and Patrick appears as a narrator, just like Sean pops up in American Psycho. Lauren returns in Glamorama as the lover of Damien, then of Victor Ward. This latter character is present in The Rules of Attraction as Victor Johnson, who tells us about the stages of his brief journey in Europe where he was looking for a girl named Jaime Fields. (In Glamorama he is asked to find his former Camden schoolmate Jamie [sic!] Fields in Europe.) Even Clay, Less Than Zero’s narrator, appears as a minor character in the novel, his monologue evoking not only the motifs (Elvis Costello, MTV, urban legends) and the characters (Blair, Rip) of the first novel, but its textual features as well: his first sentence—“People are afraid to walk across campus after midnight” (Ellis Rules 205)—echoes the first line of Less Than Zero—“People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles” (1) –, while in the slogans found in the chapter conclusion we encounter the repeated-wandering sentences of the first novel (Rules 205).
In this sense The Rules of Attraction—read from the perspective of the novels up to Imperial Bedrooms and back—fulfills a central role in Ellis’s oeuvre: it appears as a nodal point in the space-time of the author’s textual universe, its fictional space and time can be regarded as a point of reference for all the prose works of Ellis. Although the book did not surpass the previous or the subsequent ones either from an aesthetic or a commercial point of view, it created a common mythic space-time of the Ellisian textual universe. A peculiar feature of this center is that it can only be perceived restrospectively, and in this way the novels that follow The Rules of Attraction fill it up with additional layers of meaning that are connected to figures and narratorial voices. If in 1987 the novel was seen as a weak rewriting or recontextualization of Less Than Zero, then from 1998 (Glamorama), 2005 (Lunar Park) or 2010 (Imperial Bedrooms) onwards it retroactively emerges as a crucial meeting point between fictional worlds, which calls our attention to how intertextual techniques and allusions, ironic re- and overwriting, the recontextualization of situations, characters and events result in constant shifts and alterations in meaning on the one hand, and on the other hand make us aware of our ever changing relationship to memory and our constant reconstruction of the past. In both cases, repetition and familiarity, the recognition of identity or of difference plays a crucial role in the formation and the staging of the characters.2 The fact that in American Psycho almost nobody recognizes anyone else, and that everybody confuses others with someone else casts an ironic light on the fictional world shared by the novels. As opposed to, or on top of this, the individual and cultural amnesia that we encounter in Glamorama, the inability to rely on memory becomes not only the characteristic feature of a generation that has lost its past, its roots and in a sense its tradition, but also the result of manipulation and deception, dissimulation, and substitutability.
These features become palpable even in the thoughts of various narrators of The Rules of Attraction, because the heterogeneous discourses that constantly alter or overwrite certain elements, variables and narrative threads—through changes in the point of view—cancel out or at least relativize the system of causality and consistency, which is then exposed as the founding criterion of life—or at least of the text as narrative—as it contributes to the creation of meaning. In adition to indicating the apathetic inertia of a generation that no longer has roots or a past, the epigraph taken from Tim O’Brien’s book can also underline the text’s poetic effect which stems from its use of multiple perspectives, and can also reflect on how the lack of causality and coherence, and the functioning of desire are made manifest in the narration of the events. If The Rules of Attraction can indeed be regarded as the repetition of Less Than Zero, if there is no underlying principle of causality and progress behind the fragments of speech we encounter in the novel (as nothing really happens to the characters), furthermore, if, despite the substitutions and the modifications, the alternating confessions of the various characters still resemble each other too much, then these features of the text all contribute to the homogeneity of space-time in Camden.
Identity, Voice, and the Debasement of Culture
As we have observed, it is hard to tell the characters in The Rules of Attraction apart on the basis of their appearance, rhetoric, or on the dominant mode of their utterances. Such a homogeneization blurs the boundaries of identity, thus sexual and cultural identity becomes unanchorable. Almost all of the characters in the novel can be said to be promiscuous, many of them are bisexual, they are mostly devoid of amorous passions, and their commonplace dilemmas about their relationship to others and their concept of happiness only take shape on the level of reflection as the denial of metaphysical—that is requited, reciprocal—love and happiness: “[PAUL:] And I sat there feeling like the hapless lover. But then I remembered, of course, that now I’m only hapless” (35). “[LAUREN:] He starts to fade. I get scared. I get scared because while I’m laying here it suddenly seems as if he doesn’t exist anymore. It seems as if only the song that’s playing does, not Victor. It’s almost as if I had made him up last summer” (40).
As opposed to the underarticulated self of Less Than Zero—in which references to the past evoke the stages of the family’s disintegration and the cessation of memory—the characters found in The Rules of Attraction have an even shallower and more elusive relation to the past.3 Lauren’s memory of Victor extends to a year approximately, but the past perceived as “distant” is replaced by the volatile quality of the present, and this tense only records momentary impressions: in this constellation the past is perceived as fictitious (“It’s almost as if I had made him up last summer”—40), and the only graspable beings are bits and pieces of pop culture, for example, music as a substitute for corporeality (“It seems as if only the song that’s playing does, not Victor”—40). The nature of these references, which also function as intertextual effects, are similar to what we find in Ellis’s first novel: they set the mood or interpret a certain situation by reaching beyond narratorial consciousness.4 As opposed to experience inscribed as absolute present, the nostalgic, forgotten, or fragmentary, and thus incoherent pieces of the past, or the desired future can never be acted out as an event in the present, so only loss becomes a “stable” point of reference. The only choice for a narrator relating his or her thoughts in the past tense is to reveal the experience of loss taking place in the present as an irrevocably past event:
[PAUL] I had lost this one. I had probably lost it a long time ago, maybe even that last night in New York. Someone had strung dim yellow lights up and they illuminated Mitchell’s face, making it seem pasty, and washed-out. He was gone. The scene of us standing there was too real and too pointless. I wandered away. (51)
Loss in Paul’s case proves to be an understood experience even if during the working through of the event the dominant feature is the lack of meaningfulness, that is, the narrator is unable to articulate the nature of the event amidst the fleeting impression of the present, which deprives him of a perspective to perceive things. The change in the tense of his utterance tries to make up for this lack, and so does the artificial, indeterminable, and thus threatening construction of the turns of events, a characteristic feature of Ellis’s prose. Paul evokes the moments that trigger the experience of loss as a scene (also understood as an everyday, public situation of debate). The objective environment does not enter his descriptions on its own right but as the construction of a figure who is never named or identified. The artificial setting distorts Mitchell’s figure, pales it, and washes away its contours (“making it seem pasty, and washed-out”). All of these effects reinforce the truth of the situation for Paul (“The scene of us standing there was too real and too pointless”), the repeated adverbs of manner conflating reality and pointlessness. Paul can grasp the oscillation between the recognition of the present moment of loss (“He was gone”) and the perspective opened up by the past that is also indicated by the grammatical form of the utterance (“I wandered away”), only in its reality and pointlessness. This way even though the speaker creates a reflexive relationship with the event as well as with its linguistic representation, it revokes its validity at the same time, claiming that it does not have a meaning, because it is real. The characters in the novel try to inscribe this “realness” as present, but as this present is inhabited by lyrics of top hits, graffiti-wisdom or other manifestations of bad taste,5 and as the characters themselves tend to become the metonymical-synecdochical attachment of these catch-phrases, the horizon of understanding is narrowed down to a lack of interest, understanding or even aggressive debasement:
[PAUL] I had known Sean like everyone knows everyone else at this place, meaning we had probably never spoken to each other but knew of each other’s cliques, and we had mutual acquaintances. He was handsome in a vague, straight way, always spilling beer and playing video games or pinball in The Pub, and I wasn’t much interested, at first. (59)
[PAUL] A boy who had been around. A boy who couldn’t remember if he was Catholic or not. That appealed to something basic in me though I didn’t know what. (86)
[SEAN] My line was neither quick or effective and I cannot believe I actually saw that girl for a while. It was when she started dealing coke so she could lose weight. It had worked, sort of. I think she still has a fat ass, and can look dumpy, and has dried-out black hair and writes awful poetry and I’m pissed off that I let her get into that position of denying me. (53–54)
As opposed to Less Than Zero’s diction lacking interpretive-reflexive gestures, characters in The Rules of Attraction readily evaluate the events and the world around them. The effectiveness of their evaluations, however, are restricted because characterization—like in the case of Clay—is fraught with irony.: the aesthetic and moral judgments they pass on others in the fictitious world could be applied to them as well. Apparently, a confessional tone of speech, a reflexive differentiation of the space-time layers, and a rhetorical distance of correlation and understanding characterize the narratorial diction, which cannot be associated with a name or be identified as a character’s voice. Even though the rhetoric of the novel conjures up the historical-discursive patterns of romantic passion (diary entries, letters found by Sean in his postbox), this confessional tone appears parodistic, not only because at this point the novel starts being poetical (figures of speech proliferate in the text), but also because hyperboles are marked by a radical subjectivity that is so different than the speech of most of the voices:
My will is an ambulance on emergency call. But I often try to forget him (I have not met him, will not meet him until later, have not dared open my mouth to confront him, sometimes I want to scream, sometimes I think I am dying) and I try to forget this beating from my heart, but cannot and get sick. The space I follow is black and arid. My obsession (I do not know if it can even be considered that, that word does not seem quite right) though futile or ridiculous to you takes the mystery from nothing. It is simple. I watch him. He reveals himself in dark contours. […] There is something circular about him, like moths fluttering in the clear Arizona night. (47–48)
These italicized sentences lack an identifiable speaker, but the evoked diary entry and letter patterns emphasize the text’s written quality even when they are not identified as a message addressing or addressed to someone. The identity of the writer is never revealed in the novel’s fictitious world—Sean (mistakenly) thinks that Lauren is sending the letters to him—and this leads to the ironic magnification of the sense of loss through the insertion of the sentimental motif of suicide. At this point the discursive patterns of sensibility are mingled with the text’s aim of grasping the fleeting moment of the present through recording bodily sensations, thus the discontinuous suicide note hovers between written and spoken modes of recording, which reveals a parodistic showdown with romantic patterns of interiority. The narcissistic self propels the other from its fabric, while, from a different angle, the self-destruction of the I (or its attempt) appears in the material context of valuelessness in the memorable scene when his roommates at the dorm drag Paul, who is preparing for a date, with them to the hospital in order to help their friend who became so drunk that he passed out:
[PAUL] How did he do it, I wondered, heading toward his door, Raymond making weird breathing noises next to me. Try to O.D. on Sudafed and wine coolers? What provoked him? C.D. player conk out on him? Did they cancel Miami Vice? (67)
The doctor’s conclusion about the boy who is clearly still breathing (“‘I don’t know what to tell you boys,’ the doctor said. ‘But your friend is dead. He’s simply not alive.’”—73) imbues the scene with irony. The scientific-cultural references associated with the narcissistic-heroic act of ending one’s life, in turn, become satirically enmeshed into a heterogeneous set of cultural patterns and layers of meaning:
[SEAN] I’m too wasted to complain. Getch is there radically stoned and tells me that kids who die of crib death are the smart ones, since they have an intuition of how terrible life is and choose this option out. I ask him who passed this info his way. The music’s really loud and I’m not sure whether he tells me it was Freud or Tony. I leave, walk around campus, look for cigarettes, look for Deidre, for Candice, even Susan. Then I’m in Marc’s room, but he’s left, gone, history, vapor. (90)
This passage is all the more meaningful, because the homogeneous series of voices are similar in the sense that they all emphasize the emptying out, or debasement of cultural products and icons. In one of the scenes they tease the hippie girl entering Sean’s life with the spelling of Pynchon’s name (106), elsewhere Sean—talking about a dialogue in a pub—sums up the essence of the intellectual debate the following way:
[SEAN] They’re all talking about what’s going on at the sculpture studio, about sculpture teachers, and sculpture parties, about Tony’s latest sculpture, even though they have no idea what it says. Tony told me it was supposed to be a steel vagina, but none of these idiots can figure it out.
“It’s so disturbing, lyrical,” this girl with a serious problem says. (119)
Although expression (“what it says”) and abstraction as synonyms for the work of understanding might refer to artistic mediation and the significance of a referential reading—and these would be important achievements within the fictitious world of the text—the emptied-out or meaningless concepts eliminate the ability of art to reveal the world/truth, supplementing it with meaningless or parodistically exaggerated meanings (“[LAUREN:] Jackson Pollock freed the line, remember that, someone told me in Advanced Painting yesterday” ; “‘What does this stuff remind you of?’ I ask her, standing back. ‘Degas? Seurat? Renoir?’ She looks at the canvas and says, ‘Scooby Doo’” ). Furthermore, once objects of various addictions and bodies/names receive equal value, and become interchangeable in Sean’s enumeration (“I […] look for cigarettes, look for Deidre, for Candice, even Susan.”), the unwanted bodily marks of sexual intercourse and addictions enter into a metonymical relationship with art: “There was always the book of sexual diseases with gruesome explicit photographs in them (some of the close-ups, pink, blue, purple, red blisters were beautiful in an abstract minimalist sort of way), which always works as a deterrent to a Friday night party” (56–57).
Appearing in the context of the universitas, liberal arts and college, the narrators of The Rules of Attraction are momentarily submerged into the cultural tradition of antiquity, but through the mixing, misrecognition, and debasement of cultural registers, they emphasize the silence of this tradition, as also claiming that this tradition has nothing whatsoever to do with their generation—the fact that Richard, a student at Sarah Lawrence College, thinks that semiotics is the “study of laundry” (192), clearly illustrates. If in Less Than Zero the relationship between parents and children can best be described in terms of a communicative deficit and negligence, in The Rules of Attraction parents are portrayed as boring-uninteresting, unwanted, or demonic figures,6 whose confessional tone sounds alien, and whose gestures seem artificial.7 These mannerisms return in the false attitudes of the younger generation, which is palpable in how Paul describes his childhood friend Richard,8 which brings us to the aestheticized, medialized world, and the confusion of values in American Psycho and Glamorama: “‘Richard,’ I say. ‘I’m starting to feel that my entire world is beginning to turn into an issue of Vanity Fair’” (160).
One of the far-reaching consequences of the disintegration of identity, the interchangeability, and substitutability, homogeneity of characters in Ellis’s text is that it is difficult to differentiate between their voices as their thoughts exhibit few unique stylistic features that would help us in telling them apart. The reason for this might be the process of social-cultural defacement, or the borrowed nature of the discourses, which would become a defining poetical technique in American Psycho later on. Both this defacement and the lack of individuality contribute to the broadening of the present moment, which is usually devoid of the distance brought about by interpretation, thus the inner connections of the recited series of events remain invisible to the narrators. Even though the recognition of causality would enable the speakers to interpret the events they tell us about, the reconstructable reality of the fictional world and meaning constitute a divergent pair of concepts in the novel, so the judgements the young university students pass on others fall right back on them. At one point in the text Sean remarks about a person who has just left their table: “Where has he gone? Does he just hang out in the Canfield apartment and drink like a maniac and split on parents weekend and have a whole bunch of friends visiting him every term from boarding school? What the fuck does he do with his life? Little Freshman girls confiding in him and long walks around the dorms after dinner?” (120). Later on he sums up his evening the following way: “I finally snap, get out of there, leave. As simple as that. I’m out the door. Fels is close by. I have some friends who live there, don’t I? But thinking about it bores the fuck out of me so I just walk around the dorm for a while and then split” (121). Sean thus does precisely for what he disdains and condemns others. His narcissistic disposition covers the differences between real life and a way of life he condemns—in this case we assign mimetic codes to the series of events. On the other hand it might be a result of the homogeneous and borrowed nature of the discourses that the presented events and impressions end up close to each other without the narrators becoming fully aware of them, and in this way the implicit threat involved in causality can only be felt by the reader. Arguably this aspect of the text becomes the most important poetical-rhetorical effect of the novel, and it has a lot to do with its ethical dimension as well: the borrowed, repetitive nature of the voices (which is a result of the lack of unique features) inscribes such turns into the novel that go well beyond individual narratorial consciousness, and connect The Rules of Attraction with other pieces of Ellis’s universe.
As opposed to the adaptation of Ellis’s first novel, in 2002 Roger Avary created a quite successful cinematic version of The Rules of Attraction starring James Van Der Beek (Sean), Shannyn Sossamon (Lauren) and Ian Somerhalder (Paul). The movie became a cult film, which undoubtedly had something to do with Ellis, whose Glamorama was published four years earlier. While Mary Harron’s adaptation of American Psycho lent a psychological background to the 1991 novel, Roger Avary disregarded the 1987 book’s embeddedness in/indebtedness to the cultural milieu of the 1980s, and adjusted the text to fit the turn of the millenium, in this way foregrounding the position of the novel within Ellis’s oeuvre. This is palpable in both the film’s poetic diction and its system of allusions.
During his journey in Europe, Victor Johnson visits several famous places, including many museums and buildings of cultural-historical importance. These loci are inserted into the narratorial consciousness either without any markers, as purely material substances (the film simply refers to them as “ruins”), or, in a quantitative sense, as a series of consumer products, locations and scenery devoid of their original context and meaning.9 The film presents this journey as a series of vignettes edited to resemble a video clip; the clip-like style of the sequence is emphasized by the music audible during the scene—although the whole film itself could be regarded as a sequence of music videos. In these European scenes Victor meets people who wear masks, which emphasizes the defacement and the loss of individuality in Ellis’s fiction. We also see Victor strolling on Bateman Street in London,10 and some moments later we see way out signs in the underground with the help of which the hopelessly lost narrator-character tries to find his way. As the name of the protagonist of American Psycho is inserted into the film as a piece of reality in London, Victor’s disorientation and the signs on the wall allude to the much discussed ending of the 1991 novel (“THIS IS NOT AN EXIT”).
The film retains the novel’s plot, and reinforces the contingency of the events within the fictitious world by manipulating time. Avary’s movie opens with Lauren’s rape scene, just like the novel. In order to illustrate the parallel narratives, the scene is replayed backwards as well, then the camera meanders off to to follow Paul’s story, then the same events are represented from Sean’s perspective. The film’s title only becomes visible in the fifteenth minute, and the sequences of pictures evoke the end of the fall semester, thus we follow the story in reverse, until early fall. The differences of perspective shaping the novel are adapted onto the screen through the alternation of scenes played normally and backwards, and, in one case, the split screen showing Lauren and Sean fulfills the same function. Another reflexive moment that can be connected to this cinematic solution is when Lauren—having caught Sean with her roommate—backs off a few steps on the dorm corridor, then turns around to walk away, which conjures up the technique of sequences played backwards. (Lauren’s movements are just as clumsy as if the scene were played in reverse.) The metaleptic moment, which might reveal the character’s intention or moral recognition, is repeated at the end of the film: the snowflake—which can only exist as a picture, it can only be shown on the screen—melting on Sean’s face as a stand-in for a tear expressing emotions can either signify the trace of (emotional) loss, or, due to its contingency, the lack of emotion at the same time. This duplicity is also evident in the closing of the film, when, because of the temporal lapses, the movie has just reached its beginning: Sean is facing a decision, just like in the novel, when the speaker is delineating (and the film showing) the available opportunities:
[SEAN] I consider the options. I can leave right now, go back to my room, play the guitar, go to sleep. Or, I could play Quarters with Tony and Brigid and that dumb guy from L.A. Or, I can take this girl off-campus to The Carousel for drink, leave her there. Or, I can take her back to my room, hope the Frog is gone, get stoned and fuck her. (9)
The novel ends with Sean’s departure. He leaves Camden College to explore a region that he has no memories of.
[SEAN] I started driving faster as I left the college behind. I didn’t know where I was going. Someplace unoccupied I hoped. Home was gone. New York sucked. (325)
We cannot claim that his departure will be morally liberating, as this is prevented by the lack of a real conclusion: the text ends as/the way it started, without a real beginning. As Avary’s movie returns to its starting point, it seems to point out Sean’s moral superiority manifest in his choice to leave instead of opting for the party presented in the opening sequence. The last flicks show us the snowy road from the perspective of the motorbike, a motif which might evoke David Lynch’s similarly circular-structure Lost Highway (1997), which begins and ends with the perspective of the road. As a result of the disintegrating and transposed identities in Lynch’s film, the protagonist at the beginning of the story becomes the recipient of a message on his entryphone, but we see him as the sender of this very message at the end, right before the concluding sequence shows the (lost) highway. From this perspective, way in and way out are lost in the crossroads between literature and film—but exploring this territory would really bring us straight to the complex mediated worlds of American Psycho and Glamorama.
- Colby, Georgina. Bret Easton Ellis. Underwriting the Contemporary. New York: Palgrave, 2011. Print.
- Eder, Richard. “Flopsy, Mopsy, Paul, Sean and Lauren.” Los Angeles Times 13 Sept. 1987. Web. 24 July 2013.
- Ellis, Bret Easton. Less Than Zero. London: Picador, 1986. Print.
- –. Lunar Park. New York: Vintage, 2006. Print.
- –. The Rules of Attraction. London: Picador. 1988. Print.
- Kakutani, Michiko. “Today’s Students.” The New York Times 19 Sept. 1987. Web. 24 July 2013.
- Karlen, Neal. “Attack of the Anti-Heroes.” Los Angeles Times 21 Aug. 1994. Web. 24 July 2013.
- Mandel, Naomi. “The Value and Values of Bret Easton Ellis.” Bret Easton Ellis: American Psycho, Glamorama, Lunar Park. London: Continuum, 2011. 1–14. Print.
- O’Brien, Tim. Going After Cacciato. New York: Broadway Books. 1999. Print.
1 Sean nevertheless lies to Paul about this on one occasion, claiming that he has no brothers, only two sisters (98). ↩
2 “Like the recurring phrases in Less Than Zero (»people are afraid to merge«; »Disappear Here«), »Clay,« »Sean,« »Lauren,« and »Victor« refer less to well-rounded characters than to the effect of repetition.” (Mandel 8) ↩
3 In this sense, we agree with Richard Eder, who claims that “The function of college is to provide a setting, free of past, future or an external reality” (1987). ↩
4 During the first “End of the World” party, when Paul relates the circumstances of his breakup with Mitchell, first the name of the Pretenders, then Simple Mind becomes significant (51). The novel uses this not very complicated system of foreshadowing also in the case of literary allusions (Sean steals One Hundred Years of Solitude from the room of one of his casual sex partners), and also in the case of films, Apocalypse Now and Dawn of the Dead are mentioned as current movies (58). The films evoke the milieu of the Vietnam War and the consumer culture of the subsequent years: Francis Ford Coppola’s famous movie directly refers to the war, while George A. Romero’s zombie horror with its refugees stuck in a shopping mall and fighting for their lives is regularly interpreted as a social satire. O’Brien’s novel evoked by The Rules of Attraction’s epigraph was published in 1978 like Dawn of the Dead. ↩
5 “[PAUL:] I looked at the graffiti on the desk: »You Lose.« »There Is No Gravity. The Earth Sucks.« »The Brady Bunch Slept Here.« »What Ever Happened to Hippie Love?« »Love Stinks.« »Most Cab Drivers Have Liberal Arts Degrees«” (34–35). ↩
6 “[PAUL:] What am I doing here? My mother wants to speak to me about nothing. It’s only a ploy to get me here so she can complain about the way I dress and eat and smoke and live and god only knows what else.”—“[LAUREN:] It freaked him out badly that I put a note on my door that said »If my mother calls I’m not here. Try not to take a message either. Thanks.«” (128)—“[SEAN:] The hippie was always tripping, which bothered me too. The hippie was always trying to get me to trip with her. I remembered the one time I did trip with her I saw the devil: it was my mother” (103). ↩
7 “[EVE:] I liked my son very much. We were in a bar together and he was being polite and I wanted to hold his hand, but I breathed in and exhaled. It was too dark where we sat. I touched my hair and then looked at Paul. And for a very brief moment there it seemed as if I never had known this child. He sat there, his face placid, expressionless. My son—a cipher. How did it end up this way, I wondered” (176–177). ↩
8 “[PAUL:] I stare at Richard only slightly shocked. His long blond hair is now short, cropped and dyed a bright platinum blond that, because of the rain or mousse, looks dark. He’s wearing a ripped white tuxedo shirt, one black sock, one white sock, and black Converse Hi-Tops, and a long overcoat with a Siouxsie and the Banshees decal stuck on the back. A tiny diamond stud earring in the left ear, the Wayfarers still on, black and shiny. He’s only carrying one small black bag with Dead Kennedys and Bronski Beat stickers on it, and in the other hand a very large cassette player and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, almost empty. He staggers in, then leans against the doorway, catching his balance” (160). ↩
9 “[VICTOR:] Smoked a lot of hash in Amsterdam too, but lost most of my stash in some museum. The museums were cool, I guess. Lots of Van Goghs and the Vermeers were intense […] Next day I took the train to Kroeller in Arnhem where there were tons of cool Van Goghs” (17). “Smoked hash on the steps of this church, the Doumo […] Rome was big and hot and dirty. Saw a lot of art. Spent the night with some guy who took me out to dinner and I had a long shower at his house and I guess it was worth it. He took me to a bridge where, like, Hector fought off the Trojans or something” (18–19). “Liked the Bauhaus architecture which I hate in America but here looked good” (20). ↩
10 The street does exist indeed: it is surrounded by Oxford Street, Charing Cross and Shaftesbury Avenue near Soho Square in Westminster. ↩